Education · Teacher Development

On Progress or the Lack Thereof

Why Education Stagnates

A colleague recently asked me a particularly interesting question, the answer to which I had held in my head for quite some time but had never really verbalised before. As such, I wasn’t able to express myself as clearly as I would have liked at the time, so this post is an attempt to clarify that response. I’ll paraphrase the question first:

Why do teachers and schools seem to resist progress and change as compared to doctors and hospitals where we constantly see improving practice and methods? Surely schools should be the powerhouses of progress and teachers the leaders of change… So why do we still see the same tired and ineffective systems and methodologies after hundreds of years?

It’s a good one, no?

My answer is effectively two-fold, covering at first the background experience of the practitioners and secondly the checks and balances in place within the institutions.

Why Doctors Are Agents of Constant Change

The average person’s relationship to medicine is quite distant and actually more academic than practical. While Medicine might not be on the curriculum at school level, we do learn Biology. This includes explicit instruction about the body based on the latest theories and and scientific understanding. We learn about how the body and its systems work, about certain functions of the body and our organs and about selected illnesses and diseases, and all of what we learn is up-to-date and scientifically grounded.

Very few of us have an in-depth patient relationship to medicine beyond vaccines and semi-regular check-ups. The average child doesn’t grow up undergoing frequent and various surgeries or subjected to a vast array of drugs and treatments.The thing we tend to notice most from our direct experience with medicine is usually our doctor’s bedside manner; we have very little awareness of their technique or skill, it being both far outside of our own skillset and a rare and somewhat mundane encounter.

All of this is before an individual has actually decided to pursue a career as a doctor. At that point, they embark upon the best part of a decade of further and higher education and training, which involves yet more reading of the latest theories and research at the fore of the field but also is extremely practical in nature with internships and residencies making sure that the doctor has extensive hands-on experience under careful observation and guidance from more skilled and experienced doctors.

What this means is that a person who becomes a doctor learns almost all of the craft through explicit instruction in the first place and experience later on and there is very little interference from observing potentially bad practice or misinterpreting others’ examples.

Progress in the healthcare institution is guided by very real and tangible results and research plays a central role in the development of new methodologies and practices. It is not a difficult question to answer as to whether a doctor has done a good job or whether a practice is effective. If a patient gets better, we know that something is working, and if a patient does not get better or worsens, then we know that something needs to change. Of course there are nuances to this, but broadly speaking this is the kind of feedback that the healthcare institution is dealing with.

Doctors and hospitals aim, above all else, to keep people alive, and so they constantly develop their practices, methods and tools in that direction. Anything that helps keep more people alive is a good thing, and if mortality rates are falling then we know that medicine is progressing successfully. There is little room for what patients might prefer or what investors in hospitals might like. There is little room for doctors being nostalgic about traditional methods or about what their doctors did when they were little.

If people are getting sick or dying, something needs to be done to stop that. Anything the doctor does that does not stop that is ineffective and needs to be improved. These are tangible and undeniable measures of success. They are not fabricated by the institution or by governing bodies; they are presented by nature. All the doctors can do is keep working hard to make valuable progress and get better at keeping people alive and well.

Why Teachers Are Sadly Not

The road to becoming a teacher is quite different from the story described above. First of all, teaching methodology is not on the school syllabus. There is no class at school that tells you how to be a good teacher. Students might be given the opportunity to take psychology towards the end of their school years, which might give some small insight into how people learn, but a) this is not the same as learning about teaching and b) it comes too late.

I say it comes too late because, unlike with medicine, every one of us (close enough for the purposes of this post, anyway) had a very extensive patient relationship to teaching and education. While we weren’t taught explicitly how to be a teacher, we all were exposed to teaching for hours on end every day of our lives starting from the age of about four or five years old and continuing for at least the next 12 years.

For the duration of this time, there is no control over the quality nor the consistency of the many different teachers that a student will encounter, nor is there any monitoring of just what the student observes, notices and internalises with regard to methodology and practice. There is no explicit instruction regarding teaching practice at all. A particularly careful and observant student with a series of great teachers might well pick up what it takes to be a great teacher herself. However, if a student has poor teachers or picks up on the wrong things or a combination of both, then she will likely carry those bad habits with her should she grow up to be a teacher.

By the time the student has gone through this protracted process and developed her ideas of what teaching is, joining a qualification programme might not be enough to overcome the bad practice learned first hand from experience as a student. Especially given that the degrees that many teachers hold—and are required in most countries to have to become a teacher—are often focused on the subject matter to be taught, such as science teachers with science degrees, and even when a teacher comes to the profession with an education degree, the programme is remarkably theory-centric and deals little with actual classroom practice.

Teachers in some countries might be required to take a more practical, internship-type qualification after the degree before actually becoming a teacher, such as the PGCE in The UK. However, not all all countries have this system, and even in the UK it is a requirement for government schools but not necessarily private school. Even then, it’s also still possible that after all the years of developing bad habits, a course like this is just too little too late unless it’s especially well designed and delivered.

Another thing worth considering is the fact that teachers teach teachers. Even when we get to the point of studying for an education degree or taking a teaching qualification, these programmes are led by teachers. If they’re not great teachers, having come themselves from the same self-perpetuating system, they likely won’t graduate great teachers. This is a little different from any other field of study. In medicine, for example, being a teacher and being a doctor are two different things, so it is possible for a less tan excellent teacher to still teach good medicine. However, teaching teaching is quite different. A poor teacher is not likely to teach good teaching. As such, the feedback loop can be self-destructive.

This all compounds when you factor in the indicators for success that govern the education institution. Unlike the tangible and undebatable indicators in medicine—disease and death, remember—performance indicators in education typically are decidedly more… […]. Teachers are marked as good or based based largely on the scores or grades that their students get. Your class graduates with an A average, and you’re golden, but fail the majority of your students and that’s on you.

This might seem sensible at first glance, but the problem that I want to highlight is the value of the grades themselves. Many people, myself included, question how meaningful the grades that many schools focus on truly are. High scores can usually be traded in for a place in university, so there’s value there, obviously. On the other hand, the scores achieved in school usually have very little to say about the skills that an individual possess. That is to say, it is hard to guess what a person is likely to be good at based on the scores he got at school. A top grade in Maths says that he’s probably good at arithmetic and solving mathematical problems, but it doesn’t tell me if he’ll make a good doctor, lawyer, teacher or otherwise.

These grades and the system that produces them come, essentially, from the very same people and institution that produces the teachers. Teachers are made to get good grades in examinations that are designed by career teachers. It’s all very self-fulfilling. What it means in practice is that being a good teacher according to the standards of the institution and being a good teacher according to the life outcomes of the student can be two very different things. It’s like if a doctor passed a test and the results of that test said she was a great doctor, but she was regularly killing her patients. Which of those outcomes should we pay more attention to?

Encouraging Progress in Education

It seems that there are a number of foundational differences between the two models I have described here and several fundamentals that can be extracted with regard to why the education system is failing its teachers and what needs to be improved.

The role of school in the formation of teachers is wildly underestimated in my opinion. I’m not suggesting that we incorporate teaching into the curriculum. Instead, I am suggesting we take advantage of the access students already have to an existing model of teaching. If students are encouraged to review their learning process regularly, evaluating their progress each meeting as well as what they thought was good and bad about the lesson, this would give them a better chance at identifying effective and ineffective teaching practices used by their teachers. Not to mention the value to learning that regular self-evaluation brings anyway, which I’ll be writing about very soon.

Teachers’ professional development must be taken more seriously too. It is not good enough that a teacher is hired on the strength of his qualifications and is put in a classroom and left to his own devices. There must be ongoing professional development available for all teachers, and it must be offered at the cost of the institution, not the individual. As much as possible, professional development for teachers, including the prerequisite qualifications, should be practical and focused heavily on classroom practice and techniques.

Finally, teachers should be assessed by an entirely different set of standards. So, for that matter, should the students. If the institution were more interested in what students were learning to do, what skills they were developing, what they were becoming good at and how all of that was going to help them in their lives after graduation, school would be much more valuable for the students, and we’d have a far better metric to measure our teachers by.

We’d be able to see more clearly what approaches, techniques and methodologies were truly adding value to our students’ education and what things needed to be changed. We’d be better able to assess when a teacher was doing good and when a teacher needed extra guidance to improve his classroom practices for the benefit of the student. These outcomes would be much more tangible than the current arbitrary grading used throughout much of the world. We would set out to develop certain skills in our students, and if after a given period they were able to demonstrate those skills, then we’d know the teacher was doing a good job.

The hope, of course, is that this would all trigger a new feedback loop; one that compounded positive outcomes and got exponentially better over time. As teachers become better through effective professional development and a more useful monitoring system, they would begin to provide better models for their students, who would go on to be more effective teachers themselves, and so the cycle would continue.

If any of this sounds familiar to you as a teacher, leave a comment and tell us about your experience and what you do to maximise your competency. If you have any other suggestions for how to improve the system, share those too. And finally, if you disagree with anything I’ve written here, let me know what you think, and we can start a conversation.

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